Cruising with canine crew has its own set of skills and requirements. This is the saga of a dog, a boat, and achieving harmony in bladder function.
In the almost three years we’ve been doing the living-on-a-boat thing, we field lots of questions. There are two in particular we get everywhere we go.
- What kind of dog is that?
- How does the dog go to the bathroom on the boat?
Question #1 is a mystery. She followed us home one day when we were living in Norfolk and planted herself firmly in our hearts. We’re pretty sure she’s Sheltie mixed with Something. The strongest Something contender is Chow or Pomeranian, but Martian is also a distinct possibility.
The short answer to Question #2 is that we have a small piece of artificial turf in a tray, called a pee pad, that we have up at the bow for use when we can’t easily get to shore. But that deceptively simple answer does not do justice to the saga of how we got there.
When we first decided we wanted to live on a boat, one of the big considerations was Roxy and how she would adapt to the boating life. And we had the same question as everyone else – where is she going to go to the bathroom? We found all kinds of forum posts, articles, and videos on the subject. All talked about how quickly dogs adapt and how easy it is to train them to use a pee pad. People we met while searching for a boat also told us the training was a piece of cake. So we were reassured and moved forward.
As soon as we moved onto the boat, we put the pad out. The first time we led her to it and gave her our usual ‘go potty’ command, she sniffed it and then shot us a look that said,
“Seriously? You know that’s not real grass, right?”
But we knew any training requires consistency so we kept at it, always taking her to the pad at the bow. She would look at it, then up at us suspiciously.
“This is a test, right? You’ve been telling me for 11 years not to pee in the house. DO NOT try changing the rules now.”
We moved the pad from the bow to the cockpit near the gate where we got off the boat. Perhaps that would make her understand the purpose better. I came out the next day to find her lying on it, watching some activity on the dock. Well, that’s not good – don’t want her thinking it’s an outdoor dog bed or she’ll never pee on it. Out on the dock was next, thinking it might be easier to learn off the boat and then we could move it on and she would continue. But she decided it was a waypoint to shore and would dutifully get off the boat and sit next to it briefly before running off toward the manicured lawn up the ramp to shore.
“Geez – this thing again? It’s like a bad penny. Maybe it’s the starting line for the race to shore.”
It was about this time that we began meeting others who said their dog never learned how to use the turf. Forum postings appeared about dogs that refused to pee on the boat and would hold it for 36 hours. Where were all these people when we were asking before? Tales of pee pad failure were cropping up like crabpots on the Florida Gulf Coast.
Time to break out the heavy ammunition: Magic Chicken. She will do anything for chicken. With chicken in hand, we took her up to the bow the next regularly-scheduled potty time. She followed eagerly as the scent of chicken wafted in front of her.
“Go potty.” She sat down next to it and offered her paw. “Nope, not ‘shake.’ I said Go Potty.”
She sat on the mat and offered both paws in her ‘High Ten’ trick. She proceeds to go through her entire repertoire of tricks, searching for the one to get her the chicken she knew I had. But Pee Pad was not in her playlist.
By this time, we needed to start heading north after our first month in Ft. Pierce getting settled on the boat. We had lots to learn ourselves about cruising, so we backed off on the training but left the pad out on the bow. Near the end of our transit, we had a day that was pretty windy and lumpy on the water. Suddenly she was pawing me, her sign she had to go outside. I figured if she would just do her thing in the cockpit I could hose it down, no big deal. I let her out and she headed for the steps to the bow. Aha! So she DID know the pee pad was there and what it was for! But we were bouncing way too much for it to be safe for either of us to go up there, so I had to stop her. Which, of course, now just totally confused her.
“Wait. You’ve been telling me for weeks to do this, and I finally try to and you stop me stop? Make up your mind, Human! And I’ve still got to pee, by the way!”
After more pawing and a couple more trips to the cockpit with her refusing to pee there, we went back inside and I talked to Dave at the helm.
“She wants to go to the bow. Anything we can do to make it safer?”
“Just up ahead I can move into the lee of that building and that should smooth it out a bit.”
I turned back toward Roxy was as I spoke., “Worth a try. I’ll take her up there when…oh wait!…never mind. Is there a laundry at the next marina?”
Poor thing was hiding under the table, totally embarrassed, but just hadn’t been able to wait any longer and used an area rug. Oh well, that’s why we have easily-washable Ruggables.
Arriving in Norfolk for an extended stay, we decided to try again. This time we got a small piece of sod to put in the tray. She gave it a brief sniff and kept going.
“Huh? That teensy-eensy park is way too small for squirrels. And if I use that for my business I’m not going to get a walk, so I’m gonna pass.”
We kind of gave up at this point. At least continuing to meet boaters who said their dog never would go on the boat either kept us from feeling like total failures. It did mean we stayed at marinas more and didn’t get to anchor out as often as we would have liked. She did love the dinghy rides for the occasional anchoring opportunities that allowed us to get to shore twice a day. She was the Princess and we were her Loyal Subjects, escorting her in her chariot.
In the next year, we periodically dragged out the pad to try something new someone suggested. We collected her urine on our walk and put it on the turf. She gave the pee pad an even wider birth.
“I’ve been framed! I did NOT do that! ”
While we were in the boatyard for a month, we put the pad on the dock and invited other boaters to have their dogs use it, since she has been known to pee right where another dog just did. But they all just walked around it also after a quick sniff. We bought this rather expensive spray that another boat owner swore by that was supposed to be the scent of other dogs. All it did was make the boat stinky and she ran away from it.
“Holy Moly! Do you want everyone to think I live in a barn? Humans sure are weird.”
By now we had been on the boat over a year and were on The Great Loop. We were busy exploring and enjoying and doing the daily work of cruising and getting her to land was a non-issue. In Canada, we were mostly staying on lock walls, where grassy areas and parks were just a few steps off the boat. Georgian Bay and North Channel had many beautiful but primitive anchorages, and we got good at nudging the dinghy onto a rock or rocky beach with Dave then lifting her off the dinghy by her lifejacket to get her the last 5 feet to dry land. Sometimes we were getting her off into thick underbrush, all the while on alert for snakes. Once we even almost walked over a beaver den we hadn’t seen. But as Royalty, she accepted our efforts with a dignified entitlement.
Once on the river system we knew there would be stretches where anchoring was the only option, with limited or no shore access. It would just be what it would be, and at least everything on the boat was either washable or wash downable. Then one day shortly while on an extended wait at a lock she started with the pawing late in the afternoon. I took her out to the cockpit and she headed straight for the gate where we usually get her on and off. She gave me a deep, mournful look — and squatted right there. Hallalujah! I shouted our success to Dave, and treats and ‘Good Girls!’ were generously bestowed. Ok, so it wasn’t on the pad, but this was a start! A few days later, she actually went on the pad up on the bow! I think she got a whole Magic Chicken breast as soon as we got back to the cockpit for that one.
“Wait – so THAT’S what you wanted me to do with this green plastic stuff??? Why didn’t you just say so! You Humans need to work on your communication skills.”
After that first time, she continued to use it reluctantly – even with all the chicken – when we were underway or at anchor. It had only taken about 16 months, but her timing couldn’t have been better as we were at a point on the rivers where anchoring was the only option. We still found places where we could get ashore in the morning and evening, but it was muddy, cold, stinky, or all three. It was still a relief (literally, I guess) to have the pad option though.
Now she uses it when necessary– midday on longer travel days, or at bedtime when anchored out. We actually enjoy our twice a day walks and being off the boat with her as much as we can. When she does use the pad, she does her stuff and hurries back for the treat that awaits. It’s all about the treats.
So it was a long journey for us, but we did get there. In retrospect, we could have been more consistent. Trying new things frequently just complicated it; she is clearly smarter than we were. Along the way, we saw classic training principles in action.
- You can teach old dogs new tricks, it just takes longer.
- Positive reinforcement works better than negative.
- Training is all about consistency, patience, and persistence.
Yes, Roxy has trained us well.
“They’re still a work in progress.”